What a difference a year makes.
In the summer of 2021, the Los Angeles Lakers went in hard on Talen Horton-Tucker.
In wanting to limit their luxury tax payments, they made the choice to decide between giving a raise to Horton-Tucker or Alex Caruso, who had quietly worked his way into one of the more underrated perimeter defenders in the league. They chose Horton-Tucker.
Meanwhile, as the Lakers went about exploring sign-and-trade options to bring veteran point guard Kyle Lowry to L.A., it was reported that Horton-Tucker would have to be a part of any return package. Who knows how close to fruition any such deal got, but the Lakers’ refusal to include him effectively ended things.
Horton-Tucker was wanted — not just by L.A., but by other teams, too.
A year later, things are obviously different, as evidenced by Horton-Tucker being traded to the Utah Jazz pretty much straight-up for Patrick Beverley.
Of course, that necessitates asking a couple of relevant questions, namely: Why did the Lakers pull the plug? And what do the Jazz see in Horton-Tucker?
The former is pretty simple: to be in L.A.’s rotation, he needed to display some 3-and-D acumen. And to this point, he hasn’t provided either component of that role.
Despite being 6-foot-4 with a 7-1 wingspan, he has been a mediocre perimeter on-ball defender in his first three seasons, and a poor help defender, too.
Part of this can be attributed to him being a 21-year-old whose instincts have not fully developed yet. Another element is that, with a unique frame that puts his playing weight at about 235 pounds, he simply lacks the requisite foot speed to keep up with quicker opponents.
Those long arms do pay occasional dividends in passing lanes, and, similar to ex-Jazz wing Royce O’Neale, Horton-Tucker has had some success guarding bigger wings. But to this point, there’s simply not enough impact on that end.
As for the shooting component … well, it’s certainly not a great sign that his efficiency both from the field as a whole and beyond the arc specifically has declined in each of his three seasons.
He shot 46.7% overall as a rookie, then 45.8%, all the way down to 41.6% this past season. On 3-pointers, his high-water mark was the 30.8% he made in his first season; since, he’s converted just 28.2% and 26.9%. Teams last season were completely sagging off him and daring him to beat them with open jumpers. He could not.
Needless to say, despite showing flashes of talent, Horton-Tucker had yet to display any kind of consistent development or the requisite role-player skills the Lakers need. He’s at his best when the ball is in his hands, and that simply wasn’t going to happen much on that roster.
And so, paying more than $10 million a season to a guy who’d tumbled so far down the rotation that he was a likely third-stringer — even for a Lakers team hardly renowned for its wing player prowess — made retaining him untenable. Beverley will far more seamlessly fill some of the Lakers’ needs.
None of this means the Jazz took on a lemon with zero redeeming value.
As much as Horton-Tucker did not align with the Lakers’ needs and timeline, the Jazz’s present situation makes him a player worth gambling upon.
Utah is clearly embracing a rebuild, and thus is in a better position to deal with Horton-Tucker’s ups and downs.
The Jazz also can afford to hand him more on-ball opportunities, which is where he has flourished most to this point.
His biggest strength, as broken down so expertly by Sam Vecenie of The Athletic, is his driving ability.
That aforementioned unique frame, featuring size and length, helps him create mismatches. Further, his quality ball-handing in combination with an idiosyncratic, herky-jerky style of attack often throws defenders off-kilter and helps him generate additional advantages.
From there, even though Horton-Tucker’s assist numbers and percentages are not necessarily eye-popping, he has displayed enough vision and court awareness to be a great and willing passer out of those drives.
As for when he keeps the ball, he’s an adept if inefficient scorer. Part of that is, of course, the miserable shooting numbers (which goes beyond just 3-point shooting, and is pretty bad across most of his halfcourt offense jumper attempts). Still, he’s able to offset that a bit thanks to an impressive array of spins and countermoves inside the paint.
Still, he could stand to improve as a finisher at the rim as well — which will not be the easiest feat, considering he’s not explosive athletically.
In effect, there is some talent and skill there. The Lakers no longer had the requisite time to try and develop it.
The Jazz should have plenty of that.